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Yemen, the long march toward justice

Yemen’s opposition party coalition, the Joint Meeting Parties (JMP), announced Tuesday that it would support a US approved consensus candidate from the ruling party, Vice President Abdu Rabo Mansour Hadi, in upcoming presidential elections.

On November 24, President Ali Abdullah Saleh nominally transferred executive powers to Mr. Hadi but will remain Yemen’s honorary president until a new election on February 21, 2012.

After months of UN mediation, a unity government of ruling party and JMP leaders was formed earlier this month. Of particular concern is the retention of key security and military posts by Saleh loyalists. The new cabinet, which is largely beyond any mechanism of public accountability, approved a national reconciliation plan on Monday.

However, mass public protests are continuing in Yemen, even after November’s symbolic transfer of presidential power. Last Friday, hundreds of thousands across the nation participated in demonstrations themed, “Saleh’s trial is our demand.”

On Tuesday, thousands of protesters embarked on a 170 mile march from the southern province of Taiz to the capital city, Sana’a to highlight rejection of international guarantees of immunity for President Saleh and other officials. Both cities experienced repetitive massacres at the hands of state security forces since pro-democracy protests began last February. Thousands were killed and wounded.

The opposition parties in the JMP neither led nor initially endorsed the grass roots “Jasmine Revolution” in Yemen.

Protesters, rejecting both the ruling regime and the opposition parties, were frozen out of transition planning when their demands conflicted with those of the international community—stability and the continuity of counter-terror efforts.

The well articulated demands of the Yemeni public include, in addition to Saleh’s trial, the freezing his funds abroad, removal of the entire Sana’a regime, a public accounting of embezzled funds, a six month transitional period, and the correction of mass irregularities in the voter rolls under an impartial electoral commission leading to parliamentary system based on proportional list-based elections.

The JMP’s participation in an uncontested election in 60 days was greeted with derision by many in Yemen.

“The opposition in Yemen is as dirty as President Saleh’s party, and their turn will come. No one is excluded from the wrath of the people. Billions are still lost every year in corruption scandals. None of these files have been opened, so how can we consider the revolution over…From today, anyone who holds a high post in government will be held accountable,” as an editorial in the Yemen Post gave voice to the sentiment.

Years of unbridled government corruption and economic malfeasance had brought Yemen to the brink of collapse prior to the eruption of street protests which only further stalled economic activity. The UN estimates four million Yemenis will need food aid in the coming year.

UN Betrayal

A toothless UN Security Council resolution issued October 21 condemned nationwide human rights abuses by Yemeni authorities but contained no sanctions and did little to reduce state violence. The resolution also endorsed the implementation of the current transition plan, which was devised by the six nation Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC).

In addition to speedy presidential elections, a key and controversial element of the GCC plan is immunity for Saleh and others implicated in serious human rights violations. Yemenis have called it a free pass for murder. Amnesty International called the UN’s support for the GCC plan, “a hammer blow to accountability for human rights violations.”

“By lending their support to the transition deal, it appears that UN officials have allowed wiggle room for serious human rights violators to go unpunished in Yemen and violated the UN Secretary General’s directive that prohibits brokering peace agreements which contain immunity clauses,” said Philip Luther, Amnesty International’s Acting Director for the Middle East and North Africa.

The GCC plan’s strongest supporters are the US and Saudi Arabia, and its most vocal critics are the Yemeni people themselves. Nobel laureate Tawakkol Karman urged the UN to “stand up for human rights and democracy, which are the principles it was founded upon,” and to prosecute Saleh, whom she described as a war criminal.

However, the prosecution of Yemeni officials for crimes against humanity may also implicate Yemen’s northern neighbor, Saudi Arabia, which in 2009 bombed “rebel villages,” a hospital and other civilian infrastructure in Sa’ada, Yemen. Similarly western nations provided satellite imagery and other support to the Sana’a regime during the Sa’ada War (2005-2010) which was characterized by collective punishment of civilians, mass arbitrary arrests, denial of humanitarian aid and indiscriminate bombing, displacing 300,000 citizens, mostly women and children.

Other public demands include “forming an independent higher authority that will ensure freedom of expression.” However in the month since the “transition of power,” political and pro-revolution web sites remain blocked in Yemen. On Wednesday, armed men led by a known Saleh loyalist stormed the offices al Wahada newspaper, preventing the weekly’s distribution, after the editor expressed support for the protesters.

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